HARARE, Zimbabwe — Elephants across the African continent face poaching, loss of habitable land and food supplies and culling. When World Wildlife Day was marked this month, the United Nations General Assembly discussed wildlife crime across the globe, including the threat to elephants, which are declining in number throughout Africa.
Here in Zimbabwe, they face a new threat — export to other countries to live in zoos or in safari parks and possibly endure unsavory conditions — and are the subject of a continuing debate on whether the elephant population is endangered or needs culling for sustainable development needs. Even the numbers of elephants in Zimbabwe are controversial and murky.
To deal with what they say are the country’s excess elephants, the Zimbabwean government has sold calves to the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and China, and it is planning further sales this year. France recently canceled plans to buy 20 elephants, bowing to pressure from international animal rights’ groups. Each elephant sells for $40,000 to $60,000. According to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, an elephant has a “replacement value” of $50,000.
Earlier this year, 80 young elephants were held in a facility at Hwange National Park. Nine elephants from the park have already been sent to the United Arab Emirates, 27 to Thailand and the balance will go to China, said Johnny Rodrigues, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chairman, in an interview with PassBlue. Earlier this month, the task force said that a Chinese delegation was in the country, preparing to export its elephant purchase.
While trade in ivory is illegal globally, trade in live elephants is legal, according to terms in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which lists the animals under Appendix II as “species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.” Most members of the UN are signatories to the convention, including Zimbabwe.
The convention regulates the trade of certain animals, but permits are not always needed to engage in the sale of animals. In a National Geographic interview, the chief scientist of Cites, David Morgan, said that “the intentions on the part of Zimbabwe have not been formally indicated to us. . . . But Zimbabwe isn’t obliged to communicate that to us.”
In January, The Herald, one of Zimbabwe’s main daily newspapers, reported that there are 80,000 elephants in the country, more than the national game parks have the money or the ability to handle. Feeding these elephants uses up scarce resources, and Hwange National Park alone would spend up to $500,000 annually just for water for their elephants, said Geoffrey Matipano, the acting director of the National Parks and Wildlife Authority.
As a result, a Zimbabwean journalist, Jeffrey Gogo, argued that the country “has a right to draw income from its natural resources.” Matipano has also said that if legalized, trade in ivory could be used to “conserve the remaining animals.”
Some experts at the UN say that the elephant population could be a burden. David Phiri, the subregional coordinator and representative for the Food and Agriculture Organization, said, “Looking at this from a sustainable use of natural resources perspective, it is indeed the case that the large population of elephants in Zimbabwe has continued to adversely affected the sustainable use and management of the natural resource that these very elephants depend on.”
Phiri said that Zimbabwe has the environmental capacity to hold 50,000 elephants. The current population lies between 50,000 to 100,000, depending on government sources; others say the numbers are much lower.
“This high elephant population is above the carrying capacity, which would justify some culling/selling,” said Verity Nyagah, the UN Development Program country director in Zimbabwe. “The current population is stable, and any culling or selling should take into consideration factors like other ongoing population control measures, the current population growth rates, as well as poaching.”
Phiri agreed that certain management of the elephant population is justified. “Sales of live animals — if administered properly — is indeed a way of valorization of wildlife resources of the countries that may have them in abundance,” he said. “In this case, systematic and controlled sale of a limited number of elephants is not likely to put the survival of elephant population in Zimbabwe in any danger, especially if the income generated is channeled back to the country’s overall wildlife conservation management.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, hundreds of elephants were culled because of the damage they caused to the environment, especially in agricultural areas. The Zimbabwean authorities say that selling the calves is better than killing them.
But only one of the eight elephants exported to China in 2012 has survived, said Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a nonprofit group.
The numbers of Zimbabwe’s elephants vary according to different government sources, ranging from more than 50,000 to 100,000. But Rodrigues thinks that the numbers are much smaller. The authorities have not conducted an official audit of elephant numbers since 1997, he said. He contended that the government had overestimated these figures to justify the sale of elephant calves.
According to the Elephant Database, which receives reports from the International Union for Conservation of Natural African Elephant Specialist Group, a network of governments and nonprofits, there were 47,366 elephants in Zimbabwe in 2012, down from 84,416 in 2007. Rodrigues said that the Great Elephant Census, a project led by Paul G. Allen, the American philanthropist, to calculate the number of elephants in the southern African region by 2016, had counted about 20,000 elephants so far in the past year.
Cites has said that African elephants are not endangered, but many conservation groups disagree.
Cites released statistics in March showing that poaching rates continued to exceed natural elephant population growth rates in 2014, meaning that elephant numbers will continue to decline in Africa. The UN report published on March 3, 2015, to commemorate World Wildlife Day, revealed that 20,000 to 25,000 elephants are killed every year. Forest elephants declined by about 62 percent from 2002 to 2011, says data from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the same report, Secretary-General John E. Scanlon of Cites, said: “The situation is serious. We must tackle the poaching, transport and consumption of illegally traded wildlife and in so doing use the same sorts of enforcement tools, techniques and penalties used to combat other serious crimes, such as trafficking in drugs or persons.”
To try to stop the sales and have elephants listed under Appendix I of Cites as “species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants . . . threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial,” Rodrigues and the task force have begun a campaign on Facebook asking tourists to boycott travel to Zimbabwe until the elephants have been released from the facility in Hwange park. Apart from some online campaigns and petitions, however, there are no formal measures to stop the sale of the young elephants.
Elephants have been featured in the news in Zimbabwe for other reasons this year. For his 91st birthday celebration in Victoria Falls, President Robert Mugabe was presented with two elephants as a gift from a local farmer. Along with two buffalo, some kudu and impala, the elephant steaks were served in the lavish feast, held on Feb. 28.
The effects of the sales and poaching on elephant families can be devastating. The animals are well known for their family relationships, intelligence, long memories and ability to display grief in response to death, among other emotions. Removing young elephants is traumatic for both the calf and its mother, “destroying the family unit,” Rodrigues said.
In an affidavit on the Zimbabwe situation, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, a Kenyan-based conservationist who has worked with elephants for more than 50 years, said that “to tear an elephant baby from its mother is morally irreprehensible and the emotional trauma and suffering of both mother and calf is impossible to contemplate.”
Abducted baby elephants, she added, “endure fear, grief, panic and all manner of emotional trauma related to such forced separation.” In captivity, many of these animals live in confined habitats in solitude, lacking the familial bonds that they would experience in the wild. Sheldrick said that these animals faced “a lifespan on average less than half.”
This reporter made several attempts to visit an orphaned elephant at Wild Is Life, an animal sanctuary located just outside the capital, Harare. In February 2014, the orphan, Moyo, was rescued from the Musango area of Zimbabwe and taken to the sanctuary. It appeared that his herd had abandoned him because he was premature, unable to cope with the threats of poaching in the region.
The sanctuary, however, refused to give this reporter permission for Moyo to be filmed, saying that the Parks and Wildlife Authority had forbidden the sanctuary from letting journalists ask questions about the baby elephant.
The Parks and Wildlife Authority, the Environmental Management Office and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in Harare did not respond to queries from PassBlue.
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Trishula Patel is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe, who contributes to ZimboJam, a digital website focused on arts and culture; and Sava360, a site on the South Asian community. Patel also worked as a freelance writer for Philadelphia Weekly and as an intern for The Washington Post’s city desk and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s health and science desk. She has a master’s degree in world history and a B.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania as well as a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.